Steve Fiffer

Steve Fiffer

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 19 1999 9:30 PM

Steve Fiffer

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I have this recurring dream. I'm a passenger on an airplane when armed hijackers seize control. The plane lands for refueling, and the hijackers announce that all women, children, and disabled people can get off. The young mother in my row hands me my cane and waits for me to exit. Instead, I just sit there. "Why aren't you coming?" the woman asks. "Because I'm not disabled," I insist.

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In our household, Sundays are reserved for doing homework (children) and reading the New York Times (parents). Yesterday the two activities intersected. While our youngest child, 11-year-old Rob, sat at the computer working on a book report, my wife, Sharon, and I divvied up the newspaper. As we're both writers, we usually fight over the Book Review. But I gave in without argument, grabbing the "Week in Review," thanks to its front-page headline, "Adjusting the Legal Bar for Disability."

I was in the middle of the article when Rob asked for help with his assignment. He was writing his report on my just-published memoir. Among other things, the book describes my recovery from a high-school wrestling accident in 1967 in which I broke my neck and was initially completely paralyzed. I now walk on a cane in real life as in my dreams.

"Why did you write the book?" Rob asked.

"Why do you think I did?"

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He thought for a moment, then said, "To be inspirational and to give disabled people a voice."

The Times article I had been reading offered analysis of an upcoming case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). "Certainly, more Americans appear willing to be identified as disabled," reporter Leslie Kaufman observed.

This comes as no surprise to me. Either those sleek figures in wheelchairs on handicapped parking placards are procreating when no one is looking, or an increasing number of people are applying for and receiving them. Indeed, I have one, and although I got it only at the insistence of my wife and children, I don't mind using it when I can't find a regular parking space close to my destination.

"Do you think I consider myself disabled?" I asked my son.

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"No," he said without hesitating.

He's right. Notwithstanding the parking sticker, I don't. Although I would like to invoke that well-worn Seinfeld line initially applied to sexual orientation: "Not that there's anything wrong with it."

My refusal to acknowledge any limitations served me well during the years of exercising that it took me to move from hospital bed to wheelchair to crutches to cane. By refusing to get comfortable with the designation "disabled," I hastened my return to what I considered "normalcy."

I realize now that normalcy has nothing to do with the manner or means by which a person gets from point A to point B, but I remain one of those Americans unwilling to be identified as disabled. If there's a space on a driver's license, a call to jury duty, or any other application that asks if I'm disabled, I check no. "Call yourself disabled, act disabled," I explain to anyone who wants to understand reasoning that might be considered as shaky as the way I walk.

Rob and his sisters, Kate and Nora, seem to understand that I'm old-school. I went to college and law school and entered the workforce as a lawyer long before Congress enacted the ADA. While I don't advocate a return to those days, I believe the challenge of overcoming both architectural and social barriers made me a stronger person.

Nowadays, it seems that people with almost any physical or mental shortcoming want special accommodations. Obesity? Hypertension? In the Times article, Kaufman wonders if the definition of disability will eventually be expanded from people in need of wheelchairs to those in need of eyeglasses.

Eyeglasses a disability? Well, maybe that's not so farfetched. My Nora, a high-school freshman, has never expressed any discomfort about the way I maneuver (and I am a walking gaper's block). But on the eve of my visit to her class to read from my memoir, she pulled me aside to indicate there was something potentially troubling. My eyes have just begun to go bad and I've taken to wearing magnifiers. They make me look like Steve Urkel or Elvis Costello. "Please don't wear those ugly reading glasses," she implored. "I'll be so embarrassed."